Narratives of Women Workers in South Korea’s Minju Union Movement of the 1970s

Article appearing in The Review of Korean Studies, Volume 12, Issue 4

Recent studies have begun to problematize the ways an enduring master-narrative of the “minju” (democratic) labor movement was constructed over the 1970s and 1980s. By examining the voices of women unionists from the past few decades, this article seeks to understand the historical context behind the rise of a particular labor movement discourse and what it might have meant to women workers. It focuses on the complex and sometimes conflictual relationship between exportindustry workers and Christian and student labor activists in the “labor-intellectual alliance” that began in the 1970s. The core of the minju narrative is the idea that a new, historic “labor-intellectual alliance” against the eoyong (pro-company) labor establishment and the repressive state, in which the heroic actions of women workers played the pivotal role, led to the minju camp’s eventual triumph in the 1980s. The article deconstructs this hegemonic minju labor discourse, revealing the gap between its rhetoric and reality, by exploring how women themselves coped with the incongruity of their lived experiences and the representations of their struggle in the dominant minju movement. In particular, it focuses on the story of Han Sunim, a well-known leader of the 1970s labor movement whose eventual “betrayal” of the movement was deeply etched in the lore of the minju cause. Understanding minju labor discourse from the perspective of women workers also helps illuminate the little-understood politics of memory in the Korean labor movement and raises new questions on what current scholarly intervention into memory production might mean.